Known for being the first British player to play in the NBA, John Amaechi is also for being the first undrafted player to start his very first game, with the Cavs in 1995.
He was also the first NBA player to come out in 2007, four years after his Utah career. And he is probably the first NBA player to become a recognized psychologist in his field.
Graduated, charismatic, cultured and even unorthodox in some respects, Amaechi is clearly not your average player.
Alpagated in the middle of a street in Manchester
Like, when he famously turned down a $17 million offer from the Lakers in 2000, choosing to stay in Orlando… at $600,000 per season! To put some context, it was under the Magic’s tunic that the British pivot had his best season, 10 points in 21 minutes, on a team whose human qualities he still praises to this day. …
“I started basketball at 17,” Amaechi recalled to Dan LeBatard. “It’s my first time to hold a basketball! I’m wearing rugby shorts and sneakers, that’s all I have! In a rotten basket with a wall right behind the basket. We had to step up [sur le mur, après les layups] and we twist our ankles to receive each other like that… To tell the truth, a man in the street grabbed me in Manchester. I came back from the library with a pile of Sci-Fi books and went to a fast food restaurant. I walk down Market Street and try to avoid the eyes of people who pass me. It’s like, oh, he’s grown! And this guy gets in my way and forces me to look at him. And he didn’t tell me: oh, you should play basketball, which, by the way, still happens to me today, despite my graying beard. [rires] ! He told me simply: you know you’re going to be good at basketball, right? Realized, at that time, I didn’t even know what basketball was. I was surprised when I had my books and pie in my hands. No one, except my mother, told me that I could excel in one field. No teacher, no relatives, no one. I don’t know who this guy is, I don’t know, but he gave me a name, Dave McLane, which indicated some courts where I could play. And it started like that. »
Quickly welcomed with open arms in the Manchester yard, with his unusual size in England, Amaechi flourished thanks to the orange ball.
After 45 minutes of play, including a big miss on the first pass we gave him (” I applauded [en ratant la balle] ») and a two-yard air ball next to the basket for his very first shot, Amaechi cheers amid these three new friends talking about the NBA and Los Angeles: “Yes, that’s where I want to go. You’ll see guys, I’m going to play in the NBA! »
The challenge is in.
Conquest of America in the 80s
At that time, young Amaechi was training twice a week. Unpaid for the bus tickets, he walked to a gas station where one of his colleagues came to take him to the gym. He would do this for a year, before miraculously finding a scholarship to a Jesuit high school deep in Ohio.
Crossing the Atlantic at the end of the 1980s, Amaechi doesn’t know it yet, but he too will travel in time!
“Then I started to learn about high schools in the United States. Don’t forget, we were long before the Internet… One day, my mother brought me a book from the Fulbright Commission, and I started pointing out some high schools on the pages of the book, with a pen. Just random! And those are the ones I contacted, about 3,000 [300 peut-être ?]sending stamped envelopes… I introduce myself as 2m06, English and black, in that order [rires] and I want to play for your team. I had to specify black because they would think Hugh Grant was going for a basketball scholarship [rires]. I only received three replies! One of them is from one of the best high schools in New Jersey with the coach’s signature. Just saying: We’re the team that won the most games in the history of the state of New Jersey, we don’t need an import! A completely free answer: why answer!! But being a beta teenager, I put British stamps on the envelopes for the return! Eventually I got an offer from Toledo St John’s, which was taught by Ed Heintschel, a guy incredibly scary yet incredibly kind, a very strange combination. He was scary when he was on the field, running us around and on the athletic tracks. But it was wonderful to welcome me to his home, and to his cabin on the edge of a lake in Michigan. This is crazy to me. We left in his car with an automatic seat belt. I discovered that, for me, this is the future! And the air conditioning, amazing! We are ‘hunters’ for turtles, especially trying not to get caught! »
Well received in the NBA by Scottie Pippen!
Once the culture shock subsides, Amaechi can gradually show his progress on the boards. In this case, the change occurred during a tournament in Florida, at the end of an endless “road trip” of 1,650 kilometers in length, which separated from Toledo (in Ohio) in the North-East of the country to Ocala, in Florida.
“It was the Kingdom of the Sun Tournament in Florida. We took a bus from Toledo to Florida! We were installed at a Howard Johnson with a swimming pool, it was incredible. I didn’t know there were swimming pools the hotels [rires] ! We played against DC Dunbar. At that time, it was a side high school, with a big team. But we kicked them! And I had a nice little game against a guy who was a prospect. This tournament changed everything for me! My mentality changed then. I know my time is limited. I have to get serious if I want to achieve my goals [de NBA, promis à ses copains britanniques]. »
Passed by Vanderbilt after Penn State at the university level, Amaechi would live through a difficult night in the 1995 Draft, waiting in vain for his name to be called, and this despite averaging more than 15 points and 9 rebounds in three season in the Big Ten.
The Great Breton will find refuge in the state that welcomed him when he arrived across the Atlantic, in Ohio, with the Cavs while the current pivot, Michael Cage is experiencing several injuries. With a prestigious welcoming committee, including a Scottie Pippen in an exhibition match in Kansas City…
In his very first shot in the Great League, Scottie Pippen got up and pushed his shot far into the stands on a great counter. On compliments from the Bulls champ: “Welcome to the League, rook!” »
people before money
Returning to Europe with a passage to Cholet (to relaunch), then Panathinaikos and Virtus Bologna (to show his value at the highest level), Amaechi could return to the NBA with a new status in the summer of 1999. Orlando smells the good move and it’s a “win-win” contract with the player who quite simply succeeded in his career best season, with more than 10 points at a 44% success rate, including a record 31 points on March 11, 2000 to beat the Nuggets.
“Orlando is great. And not just because it was the most successful year in my career. This is a team of underdogs. I will always remember Darrell Armstrong responding to a reporter: But what are you talking about? [La progression de ‘Meech’ ne me dérange pas du tout], we will continue to climb this horse as long as he can run and when he gets tired, we will have another one! It is very rare to be part of a team like this. We have no problem sharing the ball as long as we are winning. »
Courted by the Lakers the following summer, with a huge contract at stake, Amaechi favored the Magic, much to the surprise of NBA fans, as well as the general public! People before money, a strong position that perfectly characterizes John Amaechi.
A basketball player who knows how to stay rational and, even better, who thinks deeply about his own situation…
“It’s not disrespect [que j’ai pour ma carrière de basketteur], this is a suitable distance. Sometimes people should think about reducing their profession to its basics: what do they really do for a living? To see if it makes sense, if it carries something, if it’s brilliant. Personally, I put a ball in a basket for a living for twenty years! Then, we can mention the admiration of the children, the sponsorship contracts, which I did not see the color. [rires], or a whole bunch of other things, but I basically put the ball in a basket for a living. And earn it! But there are people listening to us who can, with their eyes and hands, repair a car, repair an engine. There are people who do this with people, educators who work with children for example. When they crystallize their work, it gives a gem. I have no disdain [pour le basket], just an appropriate distance. »